Maldon U3A

Trip to Flanders in April 2015

The trip started with a test of nerves for our intrepid leader, Mary, when the coach failed to appear at ETA. It was at Tesco's , we were at Morrison's. Matter resolved we started off, a bit later than intended!

The highlight of Day One was the visit to Floralia Brussels, a wonderful display of spring flowering bulbs in the grounds of a fairy tale chateau. Although cool, the sun shone and the sight of over 1 million bulbs, some in formal beds, others in multi coloured drifts in woodland settings, was indeed lovely. Every tulip you could imagine was there! An enthusiastic and delightful botanist guided us through, and we all learned something from the tour.

We started Day Two by driving to Nieuport to take a river boat trip on the Yser River, which took us along the banks of the battlefields of World War One. Our excellent guide explained how the war started and how Belgium fared in the war.

There were three main battles around Ypres in the period 1914/1918. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers of both sides were killed or wounded together with an unknown number of civilians. Nearly all the buildings were destroyed and these have been rebuilt largely in their original style. It is estimated that 12 shells were fired every second over the four and a half years of the war. Some 3,000 explosive devices are still found each year causing yet more casualties.

Following lunch we then visited the ‘In Flanders Field Museum’ in Ypres. This enhanced our talk of the morning with pictorial and video presentations of the horrors of the war. It is hard to conceive the hardship of the trenches and how the soldiers suffered. After the Museum visit we had a three hour tour of the battlefields with an excellent Guide. She explained about the cemeteries and the role of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

The first cemetery we visited was the ‘Essex Farm Cemetery’. It was here that John McCrae, the Canadian Surgeon and Poet who at age 41 volunteered to join the Canadian Expeditionary Force being sent to fight in Europe, wrote in May 1914 the stirring poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ following the death of a close friend. The site of the cemetery was a battlefield station treating the injured and we were able to see the bunkers where the soldiers were treated. Being a battlefield cemetery the graves are not set out in a regimented fashion but reflect the haphazard way the soldiers were buried as they died.

There are over 100 War cemeteries scattered over Flanders. The largest Commonwealth cemetery, Tyne Cot, has a memorial for 35,000 soldiers with no known grave together with nearly 12,000 graves. The Commonwealth Graves are pristine with white grave stones set in flower beds. The Guide explained how the religion, rank and regiment of each soldier is etched on each grave stone. All the grave stones are the same style and size, as all men are deemed to be equal in death. The German cemetery we visited at Langemark was in stark contrast to the Commonwealth cemeteries, in that black stones with details of the soldiers buried are placed flat on the ground (similar to our cremation stones), together with a mass grave containing some 25,000 soldiers. After an evening meal we attended the nightly Last Post Ceremony at the Menin Gate Monument in Ypres, listing the names of a further 55,000 soldiers with no known grave.

Altogether it proved to be a very moving and poignant day contemplating the sadness of death and injury of so young and so many people.

Day 3 started with a visit to Tournai on the River Schelde, one of the oldest cities in Belgium, and once an important centre for the cloth industry with wool from England.  In the Tourist Office, a Video Presentation showed a brief history of the city starting from Roman times. Occupied by various countries over the centuries, including England from 1513-1518,Tournai became part of independent Belgium in 1830, but was occupied by Germany from 1914-1918, when larger houses were used as hospitals. In WW2 it was reduced to ashes by firebombs in May 1940 and liberated in September 1944.

Beautifully restored to its former glory, Tournai is dominated by the 5 Towered Notre Dame Cathedral, built in Romanesque and Gothic style of the 11th and 12th century, but currently undergoing restoration after a tornado in 1999 destabilised one of the Towers.

Continuing on Le Petit Train, our enthusiastic guide showed us other interesting historical buildings, including the Town Hall in the Abbey grounds, the remaining Round Towers and Medieval Bridge along the Boulevards outside the one time city walls,  the huge 19thC Railway Station and finishing in The Grand Place alongside the 12thC Bell Tower. Here free time allowed us to explore further this delightful city which rightly deserves to be a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 And so to our last excursion, to a small village called Ploegsteert – too hard for the British Tommies to get their tongues around, so it will forever be Plugstreet. The “Plugstreet 14-18 Experience” tells the story of the fighting, the suffering and the military losses on both sides and also the fears and hardships of the civilians. A couple of days before our visit having been Anzac Day, the wreaths that were laid at the memorial there were flowers from Australia and New Zealand. It was a calm and peaceful setting, far removed from the mud and horrors of the trenches, and it gave us an opportunity to reflect on what we had learned about the Great War. We were now ready to go home.

Chateau de Grand Bigard

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Last revised 13 May 2015.